SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. — Beyond the name-brand recognition of Notre Dame and Ohio State, Friday’s Fiesta Bowl is one of the more intriguing bowl matchups in recent memory due to the sheer number of potential future NFL players on the field.
Thirteen players on Bleacher Report’s Matt Miller’s big board will play in the Fiesta Bowl: Notre Dame linebacker Jaylon Smith (No. 2), Ohio State defensive end Joey Bosa (No. 3), Notre Dame left tackle Ronnie Stanley (No. 5), Ohio State running back Ezekiel Elliott (No. 13), Ohio State wide receiver Michael Thomas (No. 22), Ohio State cornerback Eli Apple (No. 33), Ohio State linebacker Joshua Perry (No. 37), Ohio State left tackle Taylor Decker (No. 41), Ohio State safety Vonn Bell (No. 47) Notre Dame running back C.J. Prosise (No. 57), Ohio State H-back Braxton Miller (No. 66), Ohio State safety Tyvis Powell (No. 67) and Notre Dame defensive tackle Sheldon Day (No. 73).
Suspended Buckeyes defensive tackle Adolphus Washington ranks 50th on Miller’s list, while injured Irish cornerback KeiVarae Russell is 88th. Notre Dame wide receiver Will Fuller didn’t make the cut, but will decide whether or not to turn pro after the Fiesta Bowl, too.
“It’s basically an NFL game,” Apple said.
There are three one-on-one matchups between these NFL prospects that will influence the Fiesta Bowl’s winner:
1. Ronnie Stanley vs. Joey Bosa: Ohio State coach Urban Meyer announced Bosa will turn pro after the Fiesta Bowl, while Stanley as expected will head to the NFL as well. Bosa is a pass-rushing menace who can be extremely disruptive, but Stanley is one of the nation’s best offensive linemen who rarely allows opposing players to pressure the quarterback. If Stanley can neutralize Bosa, it’ll go a long way toward allowing Notre Dame’s offense to operate. But if Bosa pushes in the backfield frequently, the Irish may not be able to rely on their offense, as they have all season.
“He can run, he’s athletic, he’s long,” Bosa said of Stanley. “I can tell he’s been getting better every week. He’s definitely going to be a challenge.”
2. Jaylon Smith vs. Ezekiel Elliott: Elliott is a talented running back, of course, but he’s running behind one of the best offensive lines in college football. Even though Notre Dame’s defensive line is a solid unit, chances are, Sheldon Day & Co. won’t be able to get their hands on the St. Louis native too often. That could lead to some open-field meetings between Smith and Elliott. But if Smith can’t get there, or can’t bring down Elliott, it’ll probably mean a big day for the Ohio State running back.
“(Smith’s) the best athlete we’ll face all year,” Elliott said. “He runs from sideline to sideline making plays. Combine his athletic ability with his size and he’s very impressive.”
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3. Will Fuller vs. Eli Apple (and Vonn Bell/Tyvis Powell). Clemson created the blueprint for how to stop Notre Dame’s offense by loading the box to stop the run and having MacKensie Alexander lock down Fuller for only two catches in that 22-20 Tigers win in October. The best-case for Ohio State is Apple keeps Fuller from ripping off explosive plays on his own, allowing Bell to play closer to the line of scrimmage in an effort to mute Notre Dame’s rushing production. But Ohio State’s secondary is keenly aware of Fuller’s ability and will do everything it can to keep Fuller from going deep. If Fuller is able to peel away from Apple even one or two times, though, it’ll open up plenty of doors for Notre Dame’s offense.
“It’s a great opportunity for me knowing they got some pro prospects,” Fuller said. “I think he’s going to test me more than MacKensie because he presses a lot more, MacKensie was off most of the game, probably 50 percent of the game. I think it’ll be fun, more like a one-on-one matchup where you just press him most of the game.”